- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

CRAWFORD, Texas The Bush administration's muted response to yesterday's Israeli assault on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank compound illustrates the president's commitment to fight terror and his conundrum when other nations do likewise.

Eighteen hours after Israeli troops stormed Mr. Arafat's complex in Ramallah, the White House would say only that it was "monitoring the events very closely and assessing appropriate responses."

But some administration officials made clear their support for Israel's actions. "Make no mistake, this is about terrorism, pure and simple," said a senior White House offical, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Israel has a right to defend itself."

President Bush, vacationing on his ranch and staying in touch with Cabinet officials by secure telephone lines, made no comment, instead utilizing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Washington.

Mr. Powell used the word "terror" 17 times in his 11-minute press conference. He repeatedly pointed to Mr. Arafat as the cause of his own plight and reiterated Israel's right to defend itself.

While he called on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to use restraint in retaliation and to make efforts to restart the flagging peace process, Mr. Powell said firmly: "Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt terrorism. Terrorism that would target those who are innocent civilians."

Facing its first crisis from the Western White House, the administration moved deliberately to control the day's message, eventually pushing all official reaction back to Washington.

As reporters gathered shortly after 10 a.m. at a local elementary school for a White House "gaggle" by Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe, Washington was already taking over. Hours earlier, a National Security Council spokesman and a State Department spokeswoman delivered the soon-to-be-familiar refrain: The administration is monitoring the situation and assessing appropriate responses.

With White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in Connecticut and several lower-level press staffers having already departed Crawford to spend the holidays at home in Texas, the Western White House moved slowly and shut down early.

But aides said operations were unaffected. Mr. Bush held an hour-long videoconference call with top national security advisers, including Mr. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Aides said the president planned to make no calls to leaders in the Middle East, although Mr. Powell announced he had talked with Mr. Sharon and had tried to contact Mr. Arafat by phone.

But the White House's decision to handle the crisis exclusively from Washington illustrates the administration's belief that Mr. Arafat does not want peace and has refused to curtail terrorist acts by Palestinian extremists.

"We have spoken out clearly and do so again now for Chairman Arafat to act, act against those responsible for these acts and make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must stop now," Mr. Powell said.

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